Rome (AsiaNews) Faced with the body of Christ the Japanese are perplexed; they have a hard time understanding its intellectual and philosophical meaning but they do feel the mystery of the potential encounter with God Incarnate.
The Eucharist is to them a source of hope and salvation that transcends social and ethnic differences and a reason to meet others. Thus, they discover the sense of being with others and linger in church after the celebration of the mass.
For Fr Alberto Di Bello, missionary with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) in Japan, this is the strength of the Eucharistic message in Japanese society, a frenetic and multicultural place where people convert for the joy that Christianity brings but also after a making a personal search for knowledge, including the use of the Internet.
Father Di Bello, 64, from Milan, has spent exactly half of his life in the Land of the Rising Sun. In 32 years he has had four different parish churches (Saga, Fuchu, Yamato and Mishima) and now is regional Superior in Tama (just outside Tokyo).
Speaking to AsiaNews, he told us of the joys and difficulties of missionary life in a country where the Christian message seems very foreign compared to the local culture but also very "fascinating and surprising".
How important is the Eucharist in your work as a missionary in Japan?
The Eucharist is the only thing that works all the time. Notwithstanding its theological function, it is the only thing that deeply touches everyone.
Faced with the body of Christ the Japanese are perplexed; they have a hard time understanding its intellectual and philosophical meaning but they do feel the mystery of the ritual.
This aspect comes closest to their own culture. Shintō [Japan's national religion] includes various rituals that put the faithful in contact with the mysteries of nature, seasonal changes, one's ancestors.
By putting people in contact with the mystery of God Incarnate, the Eucharist makes it possible to have a close encounter with God.
People are fascinated by this possibility of having a direct contact with the divinity, of participating "from within" to the mystery of God.
Unlike Buddhist and Shintō temples, which are visited only a few times a year remaining outside, in Christianity, people "go in" and participate on a weekly basis in the "encounter with God".
What draws people to such a moment in such a highly developed society? It cannot only be the fascination with the ritual. Where and how does it touch the heart?
This society's frenetic lifestyle and the lack of a strong point of reference make people more vulnerable. But encountering Christ they feel saved.
There is nothing like it in Japanese society. Having a day set aside for regular meetings is alien to the national culture and mindset. The Eucharist is the only true moment of coming together.
The Japanese do many things together but always as part of sectoral, specialised groups, not as part of a greater whole where everyone joins in without distinctions. Only the Church gives them this opportunity.
People appreciate that and like to participate in Sunday mass. Some parishioners told me it gives them a chance to meet others and Sunday communion gives them the strength to face the rest of the week.
You can see this desire to be with others after mass when many faithful linger in the church to meet their fellow parishioners.
This has led many parish churches to create areas where people can socialise, eat and drink . . .
A chance to meet in a frenetic society, but Japan is also a multicultural society
As Paul said: "[Y]ou who once were far off have become near by the blood of Christ." (Eph 2:13).
The Eucharist eliminates all cultural, social and also ethnic differences. In a multicultural society the importance of Christ as the point of encounter increases. Filipinos, Vietnamese, Sri Lankans, Brazilians have all their particular traits, but at the centre there is the Eucharist.
We receive all sorts of proposals that show how strong the desire to meet around the Eucharist is, even outside Sunday mass. For instance, some Sri Lankans asked me to hold a one-our worship on Friday just so that there could be an opportunity to meet in the middle of the week.
The church is perceived as a place where social differences disappear, a place where everyone feels accepted irrespective of their social status.
Many of those who convert suffer from mental problems, marginalised from the rest of society and for them God represents hope. But there are also people who come to Christianity after a personal quest.
Why do Japanese convert and how?
People discover the joy of Christianity, but in Japan the problem is finding ways to reach people. For this reason, you have to take advantage of every opportunity.
For example, a Catholic friend of mine, an opera singer, was teaching to a group of students and asked me to come to one of her lessons. I improvised and became an opera singer myself just to be friends with the group. Subsequently, I was invited to their concerts and one student ended up baptised. Other students still come to see me and continue their search.
The Cross, along with the Eucharist, is a fundamental mystery in the act of conversion. For instance, I baptised Takahara Naohiro, the 25-year-old striker of Japan's national soccer team.
You may ask why someone rich and famous needs Christ. It was encountering the Cross.
Takahara was involved in two serious accidents and after the last one decided to be baptised.
I baptised him with the name Paul because, like the Saint, he is feisty.
Other conversions, especially by Protestants, are taking place via Internet.
I know of the case of a couple unsatisfied with their own religion. After doing some research comparing and contrasting various Christian Churches' websites, they chose to become Catholic.
Yamato, a famous painter, did the same thing, also via Internet.
Every year I baptise about 100 people. Even though many are children of immigrants, it is still a substantial number.